Composing : Composing With Headphones by Joel Irwin

Joel Irwin

Composing With Headphones

Most of us are used to writing music in a medium to large rooms and listening to the audio results of our product on very large studio quality speakers often rivaling theatrical speakers (sometimes exceeding). That may not always be the case for various reasons. Here are some but not necessarily all. (1) You may be starting off and not have the money to invest in a large studio or in expensive equipment. When I first created my studio out of a bedroom in my house, I decided instead of buying brand new equipment, to use what I could around the house that was reasonably useful. So I bought a pair of about 48-inch speaker stands and decided to use a pair of Bose 201 bookshelf speakers attached to an inexpensive Lapai LP-808 analog amp (purchased on eBay) which in turn connected to my Xeron-based studio desktop audio card with analog RCA to 3.5-inch connector cords. The sound is crisp and rarely goes above 40% since my wife complains when she is home even with the door closed :) (2) You may want to compose as I do when I travel on a plane or at hotels/motels. Obviously I can't bring my speakers with me and plain ear buds may not be good enough quality (though they are adequate in a pinch). For the last year, there has been an increasing number of products becoming available that use Bluetooth instead of wires to communicate to the music producing device. This has been hastened by the advent of the Apple iPhone 7 which does not have a headphone jack and requires Bluetooth. While there are many products on the market and some may argue better than (whatever that means) than Bose, I have owned Bose equipment since the 1990s when I purchased my 701 floor standing speakers for my stereo (which I am still using as the front speakers for my Dolby 5.1 surround home theater). So naturally I wanted to check out their wireless/Bluetooth headphones and earbuds as it pertains to composing music. I looked at three of their products: Soundsport (earbuds), QC-30 (noise cancelling earbuds), and QC-35 (noise cancelling headphones). They all can connect two devices at a time and appear to me to have the same Bluetooth functionality and microcode. They were created for the phone and mobile market (like tablets/iPads) but can connect to anything supporting Bluetooth. Laptops almost always have Bluetooth builtin and you can for example be working on and listening to your laptop and if someone calls you, the earbuds/headphones will automatically switch to your phone and you can hit the bar between the + and - keys on the headphone and answer the call. This has proved a boon to my working environment so I don't have to take off my headphones/earbuds. Connecting to devices like laptops and other seamless devices like smartphone and tablets is relatively easy. You put the headphone/earbuds into 'discovery' mode and then use the appropriate interface on your device to find and connect to the headphones/earbuds for the first time. The headphones/earbuds remember about 10 devices and will connect to the first two they find automatically. Connecting to a device such as a desktop which does not have Bluetooth built-in is a bit more tricky. You have to buy a device that connects to a USB port and understands your particular headphones/earbuds. I went through three before I found one that worked (and each time you need to get rid of all the software the previous products added first). The one that worked was the "SMK Nano Dongle" which I paid about $10 for at Fry's Electronics. Now on to the composing part (remember we are composers! :). Assume you have something on or in your ears and everything works and talks to each other. Can you compose with it? Well for me it is a 'sort of' answer. The problem is with Bluetooth and not the headphones/earbuds. The term is "latency". From what I can tell, the latency for Bluetooth is too high and while I can hear the audio and use Bluetooth in a 'crunch', the audio and video do not often stay in sync. There may be a solution to that. Perhaps someone here has more experience with Bluetooth than I do. So while I love working with and listening to audio with my Bluetooth headphones/earbuds, I still need to wire when I compose. What did I end up with? My primary was the Bose QC-35. It is both wireless and noise silencing. Goes over my ears and has the longest battery of all three. When I need to go wired, it has a wire option though the wire that comes with it is way to short and I needed an extension or a longer 2.5mm male to 3.5 male cable. The QC-20 went back. Why? It had no wired option, was just as pricey as the QC-35, and was too large to fit in my pocket. So I had to give up the noise cancellation of this device. I kept the Soundsport as my earbuds. No noise cancellation but wireless and can fit in a case which I always keep in my pocket in case I need to demo my portfolio which is on my iPhone. It has no wired option, though.

Dara Taylor

Great post, Joel! I have a pair of (albeit not the best) studio monitors, but more often than not I find myself writing with headphones (Shure 1840s) mostly because I write from home and I work best around 5am. My mixes seem to translate relatively well though I'm aware of the pitfalls (cymbals tend to be loud as do low booms). But I always make the habit of listening in multiple places after it's more or less written. Believe it or not, I find that my car is a very telling atmosphere for mix inconsistencies actually. I don't know where I was going with that other than over :-)

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